Research Breakthroughs

Founding the Radium Industry

THEIR NEW SUBSTANCES GLOWED! The fact that material containing radium spontaneously emitted light was among the results the Curies presented at the first international physics conference, held in Paris in 1900. Other scientists were intrigued by the implications of the idea that processes within the atom were responsible for radioactive phenomena.
“One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night....The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights.”

radium bromide
Dish containing 2.7 gr. of radium bromide, photographed (along with the card placed above it) by the light it emitted.

The Curies published in detail all the processes they used to isolate radium, without patenting any of them. Registering and defending patents would use up money and time they could scarcely spare. Like many of their colleagues in Paris, they believed scientists should spend as little energy as possible on personal financial matters, devoting their lives to pure scientific research for the benefit of all humanity. In any case, they had no reason to expect that radium would be a big money-maker.
cover of "The Race for Radium"
“The Race for Radium.” The public was fascinated by radium. In cheap science fiction novels--and sometimes in sober newspaper articles--it was touted as a magical substance whose rays could cure all ills, power wondrous machines, or destroy a city at one blow. (Photo ACJC)
announcement and price list for  radium salts

Radium Salts/Polonium - Actinium/and other radioactive substances.” An announcement and price list for materials produced by Armet de Lisle's factory. Although fabulously expensive, the materials were much in demand for attacking cancer, skin diseases and other ailments. (Photo ACJC)

READ Curie's words

A THRIVING INDUSTRY based on the “miracle” drug radium soon grew up, however, and it was tightly linked with the Curies. Pierre's pioneering work on the effects of radium on living organisms showed it could damage tissue, and this discovery was put to use against cancer and other ills. In 1904 French industrialist Armet de Lisle, whose factory would soon provide radium to the medical profession, began to collaborate with the Curies. De Lisle benefitted from the Curies' technical suggestions on the best treatments for pitchblende. In return the Curies were able to accumulate larger samples of radioactive material than they would have been able to prepare on their own. At a time when few research posts were available in France, de Lisle also provided jobs in the new radium industry for a number of scientists who had trained with the Curies.

Although their collaboration with industry advanced their scientific endeavors, the Curies did not grow wealthy as a result. With a child and a parent to support, household help to pay for, and an expensive research project to carry out, Pierre sought a job with better pay. The product of an unorthodox educational background, he found no welcome at French universities.

“...we were forced to recognize, toward 1900, that some increase in our income was indispensable.”

Then the University of Geneva made an offer that included not only a good salary but also an adequate private lab in which Marie would play an official role. The threat of losing Pierre to Switzerland energized the French establishment. Thanks to the intervention of French mathematician Henri Poincaré, Pierre got the chair of physics in a Sorbonne program that introduced medical students to the basics of physics, chemistry, and natural history (and thus called PCN).
Henri Poincare
Henri Poincaré was one of the senior scientists who admired the Curies' work, and steered jobs and monetary awards their way.
Irene Curie points to Marie's radiation-scarred fingertips
Irène points to her mother's radiation-scarred fingertips (Photo ACJC)

New Responsibilities and Concerns

NO LAB WAS PROVIDED with Pierre's PCN position, so the Curies maintained their lab at the shed. Although Pierre's salary rose, his teaching load doubled, since he kept his position at the Municipal School also. The Curies noted the subsequent deterioration in his health. They failed to consider a possible link between Pierre's attacks of severe pain and the intense radiation they were working with. Marie herself had lost nearly 20 pounds while doing her thesis research, and both Curies did permanent damage to their fingertips from their unprotected exposure to highly radioactive materials.

Anxious to contribute to the family income, Marie became the first woman to be appointed lecturer at France's best teachers' training institution for women. Located in the Paris suburb of Sèvres, the school had a distinguished group of professors from the Sorbonne and elsewhere. Marie was the first instructor there to include laboratory work in the physics curriculum.
Curie with students
It took Curie, shown here with some of her students at the Sèvres college for teachers, a full year to figure out the appropriate level for effective teaching. (Photo ACJC)

“I had to give much time to the preparation of my lectures at Sèvres, and to the organization of the laboratory work there, which I found very insufficient.”

HEALTH AND FINANCIAL CONCERNS were not the only problems to plague the Curies as Marie wound up her thesis research. Although in the course of her thesis work the prestigious French Academy of Sciences had recognized Marie's scientific promise by awarding her a prize on three occasions--and such prizes could be a significant source of income for researchers--the academy dealt the Curies a blow by denying membership to Pierre in 1902. At about the same time Marie's beloved father died in Poland following a difficult gall bladder operation.

Recognition and Disappointment

© 2000 - American Institute of Physics